‘Return to Monkey Island’ Brings One of the Most Timeless Pirate Franchises to Life

There’s an alternate, gaming-focused reality where the most famous pop culture hacker of the 21st century isn’t Jack Sparrow but rather Guybrush Threepwood.

Both are good-natured and clumsy, and both had to fight supernatural enemies. Neither is a stereotypical pirate, each had a decent shot in the romance department, and both shared an appreciation for comedic timing. And both are also original creations influenced by Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.

But only one was as handy with a rubber chicken as a sword.

Today, Sparrow and Threepwood are properties of the Walt Disney Co., but while the Sparrow associated with Johnny Depp is dormant – aside from its robotic presence at Disney theme parks – in 2022, Threepwood emerged from unexpected way from intellectual property limbo. The “Monkey Island” franchise, with original creator Ron Gilbert at the helm, is resurrected this week with the release of “Return to Monkey Island” for PC and Nintendo Switch.

“Return to Monkey Island” reintroduces players to the characters of one of the most beloved and influential franchises ever created – the optimist and would-be looter Threepwood, the revenge-seeking ghost pirate stalker LeChuck and the master of quick-witted sword Elaine Marley, usually the only smart one of the lot.

Gilbert dreamed up the series for LucasArts, then Lucasfilm’s gaming division, and oversaw the franchise’s first two installments in 1990 and 1991 before returning for its sixth. Early games pushed interactive storytelling, as they emphasized characters and emphasized puzzles based on their personality traits. Challenges were solved largely by having conversations and figuring out what people were missing, except for a few puzzles that relied on puns.

Influenced by Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, the “Monkey Island” franchises blend pirate myth and fantasy.

(Terrible Toybox / Devolver Digital / Lucasfilm Games)

The “Monkey Island” games were some of the most comprehensive interactive text of their time, drawing on the dense puzzles of Sierra On-Line games such as “King’s Quest” – as well as LucasArts titles such as “Maniac Mansion” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” that preceded them – with a greater emphasis on dialogue and twisted stories. sword that emphasize insults rather than action – think lots of personal attacks with puns – and it all adds up to one of the most colorful and absurd pirate tales told on any medium.

“The initial genesis of the game came from the fact that games like ‘King’s Quest’ were selling very well,” says Gilbert. “I basically didn’t like fantasy. I really didn’t want to make a fantasy game. Hackers looked like a nice connection between those two things. It seemed like I could make a fantasy game without it being a fantasy game, and I read a book, “On Stranger Tides”, and it was interesting because it was a pirate book but with a lot of magic voodoo. This is where it clicked for me.

After ending the second ‘Monkey Island’ game with a cliffhanger – one that ‘The Return of Monkey Island’ seeks to address, essentially bypassing the narratives of all ‘Monkey Island’ games not directed by Gilbert – Gilbert continued to boot child-concerned Humongous Entertainment, which he helped run for about a decade. He says he basically forgot “Monkey Island”. Those who were weaned on games in the 80s and 90s, however, did not.

“It wasn’t until I started my blog,” Gilbert explains, “and I realized all these people were coming to my blog with how much they liked ‘Monkey Island.’ for me.

Any modern video game that emphasizes story, whether it’s the supernatural “Oxenfree” franchise now owned by Netflix or blockbusters such as Sony-owned titles like “The Last of Us” or ” God of War”, is indebted to the finely drawn characters of “Monkey Island”, where each interactive puzzle was dedicated to building a world. When you dig up treasure at the start of “The Secret of Monkey Island,” it’s less a solution to the game’s first major puzzle than a story-building exercise that reveals the buccaneer has been partly co-opted into a capitalist and tourist enterprise. target company.

“We worked at the company that created ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones,'” Gilbert says of LucasArts. “It makes you think about story and characters maybe more than we normally would. I think of ‘Monkey Island’ as story first, puzzles second. It’s about story and characters Puzzles are used to advance the story.

Released at the dawn of an era ultimately dominated by first-person shooters, the first two “Monkey Island” games showed that gaming is best when accompanied by a solid narrative. “Really meaningful characters that you come back to that have stories,” says Nigel Lowrie, co-founder of Devolver Digital, publisher of “Return to Monkey Island,” when asked about the importance of the franchise. “The first two games influenced a lot of game designers.”

Including those from Devolver, the idiosyncratic Austin, Texas-based company that has released games as diverse as “Grey,” a thoughtful platform-focused adventure about heartbreak and loss, and “Cult of Lamb”, a game that merges hacking and slashing with community building, all in the name of critique of religion. Lowrie says Devolver has long had its eye on reviving “Monkey Island,” which has been dormant for more than a decade. As Walt Disney Co. completed its acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, a Gilbert-led “Monkey Island” seemed unlikely, as the creator had often said he had no interest in revisiting the franchise unless he does own the intellectual property.

But at the start of 2020, just before the world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, Gilbert was, to Devolver’s surprise, open to the idea. Gilbert was fresh out of the 2017 release of “Thimbleweed Park,” a “Twin Peaks”-inspired comedy game done in a vintage pixel art style. While “Thimbleweed Park” excels at creating contrasting characters and building narrative tension out of each puzzle, it remained only a critical and crowd-funded success. to break into the commercial mainstream.

“It obviously didn’t sell as much as my wildest dreams – millions of copies – but I was very pleased with the critical acclaim and player feedback,” Gilbert said. Lowrie felt he had a solid relationship with Disney — the Walt Disney Co. declined to comment for this story — and he pitched the idea to Gilbert before securing the license. “I had a few stipulations,” Gilbert says. “I wanted it to start right after ‘Monkey Island 2’ ended, and I wanted the freedom to make the game I wanted to make. So we started talking to Disney. Those negotiations lasted six to nine months.

“I mean, I wanted to do a ‘monkey island’ kind of in the back of my head, but it was never a real thing that I thought was going to happen,” Gilbert adds. “I really didn’t want to do it unless I owned the IP, mainly because I wanted to make the game I wanted to make, but Devolver approached me a few years ago because they knew someone in Disney licensing and wanted to know if I’d be interested in pursuing the license. I thought about it for a while and called Dave.

The resulting game pairs Gilbert with one of the franchise’s original screenwriters, Dave Grossman, and sees an older Threepwood solve a mystery while battling the passage of time. As unconventional as a pirate Threepwood may be, he is presented here as an aging traditionalist, though he still has an inane charm. The latter, Grossman says, is part of the enduring appeal of the “Monkey Island” games.

Many familiar faces are back "Return to Monkey Island," which sees Guybrush Threepwood dealing with the passage of time.

Many familiar faces return in “Return to Monkey Island,” which sees Guybrush Threepwood deal with the passage of time.

(Terrible Toybox / Devolver Digital / Lucasfilm Games)

“There’s something about Guybrush where he’s kind of the best and the worst of all of us,” Grossman says. “He’s optimistic and he has things he wants to do. He’s always excited about them – he’ll go out and solve problems and get things done. We like that. But he’s also somewhat careless of others, and he leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. He’s sort of the bad boy without being the bad boy.

Although “Return to Monkey Island” is a sequel to a 31-year-old game, don’t consider it a throwback. It simplifies the adventure game format, letting players know immediately how and what on-screen objects can be interacted with. And it eschews retro art in favor of a style that seems constructed out of paper, resulting in a world full of movement. The look comes courtesy of art director Rex Crowle, best known for his work on the indie game “Knights and Bikes.” Crowle got the “Monkey Island” gig through fan art.

“Rex sent me some fan art 10 or 15 years ago,” Gilbert says. “It was always one of my favorite takes on Guybrush because it was different and provocative. So when this game came along and we decided we weren’t going to do pixel art, I found this picture and I googled who made it.

But aside from a few modern flourishes and a revamped look, the overall tone — one built on mystery and humor — is still there. And now, with the game a collaboration between Gilbert’s Terrible Toybox, Devolver Digital and Lucasfilm Games, now owned by Disney, “Monkey Island” is kind of coming home.

“I often went to Disneyland,” says Seattle-based Gilbert, “because my grandparents lived in Los Angeles, I loved Pirates of the Caribbean. When we started doing ‘Monkey Island,’ one thing I I said to Mark Ferrari, who was the artist at the time, is that I wanted it to feel like the ride, especially at the beginning. It starts out like the bayou in Louisiana and everything is blue and foggy. I wanted the game to look like that. I wanted a game that felt like you were on Pirates of the Caribbean, and you could stop and drop down and play.

In other words, Gilbert wanted a game that felt timeless. And as “Monkey Island” settles into its third decade, it turns out that’s just that.

‘Return to Monkey Island’

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